The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, complained bitterly that it was a political stunt. He was referring to the invocation by the minority leader, Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, of Senate rules to call the body into secret session to discuss the failure of the Senate Intelligence Committee, headed by Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, to produce the promised second part of a report on the intelligence failures leading up to the war in Iraq. The first part of the report, on the faulty intelligence itself, had been issued nearly two years ago. The second part was to examine the use of intelligence by the administration. Last year Senator Roberts had begged off issuing a report because it was an election year. A year after the election, the Democratic minority wanted to know when the report would be issued. As a result of the surprise secret session, a bipartisan task force was appointed to present a schedule by Nov. 14 for producing the second report.
The Democrats’ move, coming days after the indictment of I. Lewis Libby and the day after the nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the U.S. Supreme Court, inevitably was tainted with charges of partisanship. The Bush administration seemed to be regaining its footing after the failed nomination of Harriet Miers for the high court, the Libby indictment and a rise in the death toll in Iraq. For the moment, at least, the Democrats took center stage.
While it seemed that the price of their maneuver might be a complete breakdown of comity in the upper house, the quick agreement to form a committee with a charge to report back in two weeks suggested that perhaps it was the shock the Senate needed to fulfil its duties. For if Senator Reid is correct, under the current leadership the Senate has abandoned its oversight responsibilities, not just on intelligence activities, but across the board, ceding them to the White House. If that is so, then the short secret session could mark the resumption of a genuine division of powers as envisioned under the Constitution.
For the Democrats, too, the move shows not just unexpected vitality, but a kind of political imagination long lacking among them. The Senate Democrats have suffered from their own complicity in the Iraq War. It was not just a matter of going along with a vote in 2002 to give the president war powers to put aside a divisive issue in the mid-term elections; it was also, on the part of many, a reluctance on political grounds even to consider arguments against the war. Thanks to Senator Jay Rockefeller, Democrat of West Virginia, the ranking member of the Senate committee, and Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, a persistent critic of Roberts’s handling of the intelligence probeit was Levin who forced the earlier commitment to a second phase reportthe nation may now get the accounting it deserves.
No doubt there was a general intelligence failure leading up to the invasion of Iraq. Its impact was widespread, affecting not only Democrats and Republicans in this country, but foreign governments as well. The media, motivated by a cautious post-9/11 patriotism, as both The Washington Post and The New York Times confessed, failed to press leads on contrary stories. But the dueling leaks produced by the bureaucratic infighting between the C.I.A. and State Department on the one hand, and the White House and Defense Department on the other, as well as abundant expert analysis and commentary, were sufficient to raise serious doubts about the administration’s arguments for going to war. In particular, the cases made for ties between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein and for an imminent nuclear threat from Iraq were dubious.
While the United States has new and different responsibilities in Iraq since the invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, the handling of intelligence to support the rush to war, as we have argued in these pages before, still demands public examination. The Iraq War was a war of choice, testing a new doctrine of preventive war as a key strategy in a worldwide campaign against terror. There is much blame to go around. The Senate intelligence committee has already reported on the shortcomings of the intelligence professionals. It is past time that we learn about the use and abuse of intelligence by the Bush administration in its bullish determination to lead the country into war. With more than 2,000 U.S. military personnel dead in Iraq, and thousands more maimed, and at least 26,000 Iraqi civilians killed since January 2004, issuing the second phase of the report is a small price for the Senate to pay now to make up for its failure of oversight three years ago.